Cojimar, Cuba: An idyllic coastal village far from the maddening crowds of Havana

A Spanish fortress built in the 1600s is the focal point of Cojimar Bay, the point of origin of the 1994 Cuban boat crisis. Photos by John Hewitt

A Spanish fortress built in the 1600s is the focal point of Cojimar Bay, the point of origin of the 1994 Cuban boat crisis. Photos by John Hewitt

With lessened restrictions on travel between the US and Cuba, many Americans are flocking to what was once known as the Jewel of the Caribbean in record numbers. That jewel now shows many signs of neglect from 70-plus years of being shut out by America, but it still has its charm.

From Atlanta, it’s now easy to travel to Havana and other Cuban destinations with direct flights from Atlanta or flights stopping over in Fort Lauderdale or Miami airports. Offering service from Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport are Delta, JetBlue, Spirit, Southwest and American airlines. 

Roundtrip airfares to Havana start around $250 per person and rise steadily depending on one’s desire for inflight services and comfort. I recently went to Cuba on Spirit Airlines—knowing in advance that I would have limited in-flight services—but with less than two and a half hours in the air, I was willing to go no frills and save the money.

For those traveling to Havana, must-sees include old town Havana with its narrow streets, bike taxis, eateries, and the beautiful architecture of the many cathedrals and government buildings. On the outskirts of old town is the central district of Havana with museums, tree-lined boulevards and plenty of auto and pedestrian traffic. Both of these areas can be experienced either on foot, a bike taxi, vintage taxi or standard car taxi—most of which are older model Ladas, a Russian-made car known for its less than dependable reputation.

Once visitors have experienced old town Havana, which for the most part can be seen in one day of exploration, I suggest a short taxi ride to the quaint fishing village of Cojimar. Less than 15 minutes and a $10 cab fare away is an experience totally unlike the hustle and bustle of Havana.

Vintage automobiles are common on the streets of Cojimar. Photos by John Hewitt

Vintage automobiles are common on the streets of Cojimar. Photos by John Hewitt

Walking along one of the busy thoroughfares in Havana there is the  almost constant sound of car horns and loud exhaust systems. The smell of exhaust fumes is so prevalent that one becomes accustomed to the noxious odor. After enough exposure, one may unknowingly block out the sounds of traffic, buses, horn-beeping taxis, crowds and blaring music. The sounds and smells help define the city that is Havana, it is the setting one is immersed in.

In Cojimar, there is little traffic, the exception being an occasional local vehicle or vintage taxi. One may hear music from one of the nearby restaurants or art galleries, but it will not be blaring. One may smell freshly prepared fish caught in the bay just hours before. 

There may be a busload of tourists unloading in front of La Terraza restaurant, but they won’t be there very long. They are given enough time by their tour guide to come inside, order a drink and get back on the bus. They are herded from one destination to the next with no opportunity to get to know the real character of the village.

A relatively small fishing village, Cojimar has an extensive history dating back to the1600s when Spain began its quest to conquer the newly discovered island of Cuba. A central feature of the village is an old fortress built by the Spaniards to guard the bay of Cojimar from other explorers wishing to claim the new-found land.

Cojimar’s memorial to Ernest Hemingway

Cojimar’s memorial to Ernest Hemingway

In addition to the sheer beauty of the coastal village, there are attractions that no other Cuban town can lay claim to. Ernest Hemingway’s famous book The Old Man and the Sea was inspired by an elderly fisherman from Cojimar and was penned in this village. The restaurant where Hemingway wrote his classic novel, which has views of the entire bay, still operates as a bar and restaurant. The bay of Cojimar is the real-life inspiration for the most often seen cover of vintage editions of the book.

The 1994 Cuban boat crisis also originated from the shores of Cojimar. Tens of thousands of Cubans, after being given permission to leave the island nation by then-president Fidel Castro, boarded hundreds of crudely constructed rafts, canoes, boats and anything else that would float, in hopes of reaching Marathon Key, Fla. Thousands died and before many could reach Florida, then US President Bill Clinton issued an order that any intercepted Cuban rafters would be sent to Guantanamo Bay.

Today the city is an idyllic seaside retreat with art galleries, bars and restaurants, private homes and rooms for rent and vintage taxis. Tourists and locals interact along the shore. The 15th century fortress stands majestically overlooking the bay where so many lost their lives attempting to flee Cuba. A small city park with pastel blue walls and benches overlooks the bay where young local boys dive from the old pier wall. The park is flanked by the fortress to its left and to its right sits La Terraza, where Hemingway wrote his famous novel. This is Cojimar.

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